The Mihir Chronicles

Cracking The PM Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell and Jackie Bavaro

July 02, 2020

I. Brief Summary

As I am exploring a Product Management role as a next step of progression in my career path, this was one of the most recommended books from product people.

II. Big Ideas

  • PM is responsible for making that a team ships a great product.
  • PM needs to set vision and strategy. The PM defines success and makes decisions.
  • PMs don't have direct authority over the people on their team.
  • Influence without authority using vision, research, and data.
  • You need engineers on your side because after all they are the builders.
  • One reason product manager is such an appealing career is you get to sit and the intersection of technology, business, and design. You get to wear many hats and learn multiple point of views.
  • As a PM, you'll be advocate for the customer. You'll learn their needs and translate those needs into product goals and features. Then you'll make sure those features are built in a cohesive, well-designed way that actually solves the customer's needs.
  • PM is a highly collaborative role. Acts as a liaison between all stakeholders.
  • While the product life cycle varies by company, it usually follows a general pattern of Research & Plan, Design, Implement & Test, and Release.
  • Some companies split PMS into Technical (TPM) & Commercial (PM). PM focuses on Research & Planning and Release, while TPM is focused on Design, Implement & Test.
  • PMs do customer research, identify market opportunities, coordinate with other teams, making sure things are running smoothly, develop strategies, be the product owner by writing user stories and the team's backlog.
  • As an engineer you are are focused on what is possible to build. You are trained to bring people's expectations down. Not as a PM, think big by leading everyone into the future. During development life cycle, you will have a chance to scale back.
  • Embrace the persuasive elements of communication. As an engineer, you are comfortable with analytical thinking. As a PM, you need to not only master analytical thinking but also your charisma. Credibility is the currency of the PM role. One way to build that is shipping successful features. Data is the fastest way to persuade an engineer, and it can be much more effective approach before you have built up credibility. Just don't forget that you have multiple tools and you should use them all to be an effective PM.
  • The most straightforward way to build credibility is delivering results. Your teammates all want a good outcome, so they’ll naturally start out second guessing your opinions, asking lots of questions, and suggesting different ways of doing things. However, over time they’ll start to see that you’re showing good judgment and getting things done, and they’ll feel comfortable trusting you. Another way to build credibility is paying attention to people’s perceptions of you and ensuring that you’re creating the perception you want. Make sure you’re building a reputation as a smart, skillful, competent, and dependable person with good judgment. It can be hard to get feedback directly from people on your reputation, so it might be worthwhile to ask your manager.
  • As a PM you won't be coding anymore, you'll be responsible for a lot of decisions, you'll spend more time in meetings.
    • The work is less tangible.
    • You become a focus point of criticism, but constructive criticism is good.
    • You don't have time to do it all so you need to trust others and delegate.
  • Designers are already focused on customer and designing great products so those skills are valuable for PM.
  • It’s often been said product managers are the “CEO of the product,” but, unfortunately, the popular wisdom here is somewhat inaccurate. You are not the CEO. You will not do acquisitions or mergers. You will not deal with shareholders. You will often not even deal with finances. However, you are responsible for delivering the best product to customers. Note this sentence covers three very important terms: “delivering,” “product,” and “customers.” Most PM questions revolve around these three terms.
  • Technical experience matters to form a strong working relationships with engineers. PM is a job where you have to lead without authority. The only way to get it done is onboard the team with your vision.
    • Able to form a relationship of mutual respect with engineers
    • Good intuition on how long engineering work should take
    • Scrappy and Self-sufficient
  • Customer focus is one of the defining characteristics of good PMs. Practice describing features from customer's point of view not form engineering or design. Do a root cause analysis by doing the following:
    • Talk to customers of your current product
    • Join the sales team for a customer visit
    • Sit with support team to answer customer support tickets
    • Write story like user scenarios

Common Myths

  • Product Managers are not project managers. Project Managers are mostly concerned with timelines, coordination and budget. Product managers are responsible for identifying problems and opportunities, picking which ones to go after (prioritizing), making sure teams come up with great solutions by collaborating with designers and developers. Project managers have a clear goal. Not Product Managers. It's not a straight line.
  • Marketing folks focus on getting users into the product, while product managers define what happens once the user is in the product.
  • PMs don't just write specs. They are responsible for seeing the entire project through to a successful completion. Writing a spec is a technique for communicating and moving the project along.
  • PMs are able to reduce the number of meetings their teammates need to attend because they are able to represent the team to other groups and find productive ways of communicating that don't require meetings.
  • It's great to do customer research and listen to what customers ask for, but it's not enough. PMs look beyond what customers say to see hidden needs and deeper goals.
  • PMs don't set the dates, engineers set dates. Telling engineers to code faster won't work. You want them on your side. You need to make tradeoffs. Not trusting the engineers estimates and promising other teams that the work will be done sooner than the engineers agree is one of the fastest ways to ruin your relationship with the team.
  • Product managers are not the bosses. They influence everyone to the common goal. They don't have authority.
  • You can't say that's not my job. PMs are responsible for success or failure so no job is beneath you.


  • Research & Planning: All products & features start with research & planning. Ideas can come from a customer request, competitive analysis, new technology, user research, the sales, marketing teams, brainstorming, or the big vision for the product. At this phase, PM's job is creating or proposing a roadmap. Once the roadmap has been proposed, need a buy-in from all stakeholders. Once the feature set has been selected, PM becomes an expert on it. OKR's are used to communicate the most important goals of the team.
  • Design: Once the PM has formed agreement on what the team is going to build, it's time to design the product and features. Not just design visuals but also design functionality of the product. PM will write out detailed spec: goals, use cases, requirements, wireframes, bullet points, internationalization, security. The spec will then spend weeks being inspected, reviewed, and iterated on by devs, designers, testers and other PMs.
  • Implement & Test: PM keep track of how the project is going and makes adjustments. PMs will unblock engineers, test features, report bugs and do usability testing.
  • Release: Prepare checklist, support, and what could go wrong. Make sure the launch goes smoothly.

Knowing the why

At some companies the strategy is "bottom-up" and the others "top-down." You should know not only what the company is doing, but why it is doing it. Knowing the “why” will help your answers fit the company’s view of the world. Knowing the “why” means understanding the following:

  • Mission: Look up the company’s mission statement. How does it live up to this mission? Be specific.
  • Strategy: What do you think is the company’s strategy? Are there any missteps with respect to that?
  • Strengths: What are the product’s selling points? How does the company leverage those? What about the company or its products has enabled its success?
  • Weaknesses: What are the major issues with the company and its products? How should the company address those weaknesses, or should they just accept them?
  • Challenges: What are the biggest challenges for the company right now? How do you see them addressing those? What challenges have they overcome?
  • Opportunities: Is there anything on the horizon (with technology or in their industry) that might create an opportunity for the company?
  • Threats: Similarly, is there anything on the horizon which might threaten the company’s success?
  • Future: What do you think the future holds for this company? Think about any new products or features that would be a natural fit.


Here are some skills you can emphasize when looking for PM roles:

  • Analysis: Do you work with data at your current job? Are you an Excel ninja? Many software companies are looking for data-driven PMs who can make sense of metrics and draw insights from usage patterns.
  • Customer Focus: Are you in a customer-facing role? Have you learned how to translate customer feedback into action? Companies love product managers who understand customers and their needs.
  • Business Savvy: Are you comfortable putting together business cases? Do you know how to size a market? Your experience can be a real asset in making the right business decisions.
  • Marketing: Do you have a background in marketing? Can you effectively communicate the value of a product? Marketing skills can help a PM design a product that will do well in the marketplace.
  • Industry Expertise: Do you have deep knowledge of how your industry works? If so, you have a leg up on applying to PM jobs in that industry. Your understanding of the industry means you can be a productive PM in a short amount of time.
  • Helpfulness: Could your team use some product management help? Do you have some extra capacity to step in? Many people slide into the PM role just by helping out when there was a gap.


A framework is just a structure for taking a big, complicated problem and breaking it down into smaller pieces. Whenever you hear a Case Question, you should think about how you can break it down into smaller questions. These frameworks give examples of ways to do that. Different frameworks:

  • Customer Purchase Decision Making Process helps us understand the buying process and gives us an “entry point” for boosting sales.
  • Marketing Mix (4 Ps) describes the different aspects of a company’s marketing plan.
  • SWOT Analysis offers a framework for analyzing a strategic decision.
  • Five Cs (Situational Analysis) gives an overview of the environment around a product or company.
  • Porter’s 5 Forces describes what an industry as a whole looks like.

Data Analysis

Data analysis can be a huge part of a PM's job. Logs to come up with new ideas or analyze to see if the changes were an improvement. Data can sometimes be product metrics, user research, and competitive analysis. Analytical skills come into product management in two major ways:

  • analyzing what your team should be doing
  • analyzing how to persuade people to do that thing

Product Metrics

  • Types of metrics depending on your goals, you can break down the types of metrics in a variety of ways. We’ve divided them into user acquisition, activity, conversion & retention, and money.
  • User Acquisition
    • How many users do we have?
    • How (and why) has the user base grown overtime?
    • How many active users are there? How do we define what an active user is?
    • Where are users coming from?
    • Are they referring their friends?
    • Which channels are the most effective in getting users?
  • Activity
    • How many users are using feature X?
    • What percent have completed a particular workflow?
    • What are people saying about the product?
    • Do they love it?
    • Can you measure that?
  • Conversion & Retention
    • What is the conversion rate (free to paid, visiting to signing up, etc.)?
    • What is the churn rate?
  • Money
    • What is the customer acquisition cost?
    • How much does supporting a customer cost?
    • How much money does each user bring in (average revenue per user)?
    • What is the lifetime value of a customer?
    • What is our revenue growth rate?
  • Measuring
    • Usability Testing: This generally won’t give you true metrics, but it can help you understand the why. Why are customers leaving your site at a certain point?
    • Customer Feedback: Feedback can come in from social networks, customer support pages, or surveys. Like usability testing, this will generally be more powerful in offer context to understand metrics than in gathering numbers.
    • Traffic Analysis: Tools such as Google Analytics can help companies understand how users are interacting with the website.
    • Internal Logs: Logging information directly can help a company understand user behavior at a deeper level than simple traffic analysis.
    • A/B Testing: A/B Testing can help a company understand the impact of a particular change by comparing the behavior of users who have a feature to those who don’t. While it is an incredibly useful tool, it can also be misapplied. For example, rolling out a new chat feature to only a small percentage of users might give you misleading data about usage patterns. After all, I can’t use chat if none of my friends are.
  • Alternatively, you can divide the metrics based on the customer lifecycle, as Dave McClure does in his “Startup Metrics for Pirates” presentation1:
    • Acquisition
    • Activation
    • Retention
    • Referral
    • Revenue

Tips & Tricks

  • Ship great products
  • Get some launches under your belt
  • Become the expert
  • Find teams where you can pick up new skills
  • Pick the company where you'll learn the most
  • Choose a growing company
  • Find a manager who believes in you
  • Focus on your own efficiency
  • Understand how your role fits into the company
  • Help your team with something tangible early on
  • Work on something that's important to your team and the company
  • Take on cross-team or company wide tasks
  • Define and measure success
  • Don't let your team do unimportant tasks (prioritization)
  • Don't do just what's asked to do, get the job done
  • Demonstrate you can consistently deliver work at the next level
  • Find a mentor
  • Build credibility